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Korea’s digital development: origins, lessons and prospects
사진James F. Larson, Ph.D.
Vice President for Academic Affairs and Chair,
Department of Technology and Society,
SUNY Korea

The SUNY Korea Department of Technology and Society which I chair, is an extension of the same department at Stony Brook University in New York. The New York department itself is quite young, dating from 1976. Here in Korea our department, along with Computer Science opened its doors to students in the spring of 2012, making Stony Brook University the first U.S. university to establish a campus on Korean soil. We share faculty, offer the same curriculum and award genuine Stony Brook University degrees (B.S., M.S. and Ph.D.)

A question frequently asked by prospective undergraduate and graduate students is what do we mean by technology? The answer is that our department acquaints students with a wide range of new technologies, including bio, nano, energy, and transportation technologies, to name a few. However, all technologies are not equal. Some, like information and communication technologies (ICTs) are more disruptive and pervasive in their effects than others. Economists refer to these as general purpose technologies, those which can have a broad impact across all sectors of the economy. Scholars from other fields have adopted the term “digital disruption” to describe the revolutionary character of today’s ICTs. Manuel Castells, a prolific communication scholar, prefers to point to the “Rise of the Network Society,” brought about by the rapid development of digital broadband networks.

Koreans, especially the millennial generation of digital natives or “netizens” are well aware that this country is a so-called “ICT powerhouse,” and a leading exporter of semiconductors, televisions, smart phones and related electronics and network components. However, fewer are clear about the origins of Korea’s rapid digital development. To understand that, it is well to recall three profoundly important developments that began in the mid-20th century. First came the invention of the transistor at Bell Labs in 1947. Second, in 1948 Claude Shannon published his mathematical theory of communication, based on his early master’s thesis at MIT, in the Bell System Technical Journal. The third development followed during the 1970s and 1980s as engineers in the U.S. and other advanced economies developed completely digital switching systems and began installing them in their country’s public switched telephone networks (PSTNs).

In a profoundly important historical coincidence, South Korea’s digital development began in the 1980s and accelerated during the following decades. The nation harnessed the power of the global digital revolution and became the world’s outstanding example to date of ICT-driven development. The origins of this remarkable digital development can be found amid a set of unlikely circumstances, in the wake of President Park Chung Hee’s assassination in October of 1979.

In the summer of 1980, the nation found itself in rather desperate circumstances, politically, economically and socially. Most citizens had no access to basic telephone service, there was no color television broadcasting allowed, and the electronics sector was in a state of malaise, totally reliant on imported parts from Japan and the U.S. to make and export television sets.

Amid the dire circumstances of 1980, Dr. Kim Jae Ik the Stanford-trained chief economic adviser to the president in the Blue House and Dr. Myung Oh, who had recently completed his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Stony Brook University assembled and led a team of young technocrats, including other U.S.-trained Ph.Ds. They drafted a remarkably prescient “Long term plan to foster the electronics industry” which became law in early 1981. It specifically targeted the semiconductor industry, computers, and electronic switching technology and made provisions to finance these efforts and the building of digital networks.

Related policy moves in 1980-81 included the start of color television broadcasting and the creation of a previously non-existent telecommunications industry by creating the Korea Telecommunications Authority, the forerunner of today’s privatized KT. In essence, the long-term plan and associated policy initiatives envisioned Korea’s information and communications technology (ICT) sector years before that terminology came into common usage around the world. The plan took effect a decade before the World Wide Web was invented and more than two decades before Google became the world’s search engine.

The digitization of telephone networks all around the globe led to exponential growth in the human ability to store, compute and communicate digital information. The power of these new networks was the truly revolutionary aspect of their character, as the phenomenon of digital convergence vividly illustrated. Ithiel Pool, a Professor at MIT has been called the “prophet of convergence,” mainly for his 1983 book, Technologies of Freedom, in which he clearly described the forthcoming electronic revolution as a convergence of historically separated modes of communication, based on the “ability of digital electronics.”

For Korea, the long term plan produced results that were clearly evident by June of 1987. Thanks in large part to the successful TDX project, the nation built its own electronic switches and used them, along with some imported models, to complete a nationwide public switched telephone network (PSTN). The new digital network reached most of the country’s small farming and fishing villages, allowing the use of fax machines, credit card checking devices and computers. Its completion marked the first important stage of digital development in Korea and underscored the nation’s commitment to building an equitable information society (정보 복지 사회). The Korean expression for “equitable information society” does not easily translate into English, but essentially it refers to an information society in which all citizens have equal access to the Internet and digital technologies, or one without prominent digital divides.

The TDX project along with success in developing the 4 MB DRAM semiconductor gave a tremendous boost in confidence to the nation’s policymakers, researchers and engineers. Furthermore, such developments in digital computing, storage and communications technologies are cumulative. A nation does not simply build fiber-optic broadband networks overnight! Nor is it easy to skip the building of such fixed, high-bandwidth networks for a “mobile-only” solution.

Today Korea possesses the fastest, most advanced broadband networks in the world. Who knows where the nation would be without the crucial government leadership, public-private partnership and key policy decisions made at the dawn of the decade that Koreans still refer to as the “1980s telecommunications revolution.” Furthermore, it has set ambitious goals for the future, aiming to be the first nation in the world to build nationwide 5G mobile networks and fixed giga-internet networks. The tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry in the spring of 2014 deeply moved the nation and galvanized political support across the board behind the effort to build a dedicated nationwide public safety LTE network by 2017. That PS LTE network will be linked with planned high-speed rail (LTE-R) and maritime (LTE-M) networks.

To date no other developing country has matched Korea’s rapid rise from the destruction of war and extreme poverty to the status of a wealthy, advanced economy. Naturally, this accomplishment has drawn interest from many other nations around the world, most especially the poor developing countries. In an important address given in Seoul in November of 2014 World Bank President Kim Jim Yong declared that “lessons from Korea are lessons for the world.” As underscored in the book I co-authored with Dr. Myung Oh, Digital Development in Korea: Building an Information Society, the lessons include both successes and failures along the way. For example, Korea’s leading equipment manufacturers, telecoms service providers and the government failed to grasp the importance of the iPhone when it was released in 2007. Its arrival in the Korean market two and one half years later was accompanied by “smart phone shock” that rippled through this nation’s telecommunications market.

Despite occasional missteps and failures, this nation’s success in building the world’s leading broadband infrastructure is both undeniable and measurable. One need only look at various measures of broadband penetration and use compiled by such organizations as the ITU, the World Bank, and the OECD. A recent survey of internet usage in 40 nations around the world showed that South Korea has the smallest digital divide in the world, whether measured by differences in internet use by different age groups, education levels or income levels. This reflects a consistent, long-term commitment in building Korea’s digital networks to the creation of an equitable information society. It began in 1980 with measures taken to invest in TDX, semiconductors and the construction of the nationwide PSTN and has never slackened, thanks to both leadership, public education and broad political support.

Korea has drawn attention not only from developing nations but also from the developed economies. In fact, in the words of an excellent report published in 2010 by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, “Two issues of profound importance lie at the heart of current thinking about the development of global economies and societies: the challenge of environmental sustainability, and the potential of information and communications technology.” Indeed, the major research, teaching and training dimensions of the Department of Technology and Society at SUNY Korea are aimed directly at those two issues. 

The broader vision for SUNY Korea as articulated by President Choonho Kim and founders, includes sharing this nation’s development experience with others from around the world, while creating a new paradigm for education. That new paradigm acknowledges the disruptive relationship of new technologies, especially digital ones, to society. It also includes recruitment of students and faculty from all around the world, and close, active collaboration with industry, government, international organizations and citizens groups. Indeed, the education hub taking root in Songdo within the Incheon Global Campus and neighboring universities promises to become a large node in the global networks, both human and digital, as the world comes to grips with the challenges of sustainable development.

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